Rome: Sant’Eusebio

Sant’Eusebio. In the top right corner the medieval bell-tower is visible.

People standing in front of the church of Sant’Eusebio on the Esquiline Hill will probably find it hard to believe that this is really a very old church, with roots in Late Antiquity. The church façade, which has recently been restored, mentions the year 1711 in Roman numerals. The medieval bell-tower of the building only becomes visible if one takes a few steps back, for instance to the corner of the Via dello Statuto. The tower dates from the thirteenth century and was probably added during a rebuilding of the church ordered by Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241). A plaque mentioning this rebuilding can be seen in the loggia of the church façade. But the history of the church goes back way further than the thirteenth century and actually commences somewhere at the end of the fourth century or the beginning of the fifth. That undoubtedly makes the Sant’Eusebio one of the oldest churches in Rome.

History

Saint Eusebius of Rome was an extremely obscure saint. According to the Atlas of Ancient Rome he was a priest whose house once stood here. In the second half of the fourth century he reportedly converted this house into a house church, which was in its turn later converted into an official church. It is possible that Pope Damasus (384-399) was responsible for this conversion, or so the authors of the Atlas believe.[1] Eusebius was said to have been martyred at some stage, but that is a rather dubious claim. After all, Christianity was an accepted religion in the second half of the fourth century and would not much later become state religion (380). Just eleven years after that, it became the only permitted religion in the Empire (391). The construction of the official church was financed by another Eusebius, i.e. Saint Eusebius of Bologna. He was a friend of Saint Ambrosius (ca. 340-397), the bishop of Milan, and himself served as bishop of Bologna towards the end of the fourth century. We do not know when his pontificate began and ended, however. In any case, the church of Sant’Eusebio in Rome is first mentioned in an inscription from 474 that was found in the catacombs of Santi Marcellino and Pietro. At the end of the fifth century the church was known as the titulus Eusebii.

Inscription of Pope Gregorius IX from 1238.

In the eighth century the church was rebuilt, and then in 1238 it was rebuilt again by Pope Gregorius IX. This year is mentioned on the aforementioned plaque in the loggia. At the end of the thirteenth century a convent was built next to the church (currently a police station), where monks from the Celestine order settled. Their order had been founded by Pietro da Morrone (1215-1296), the future Pope Celestinus V. In 1294, after a conclave of 27 months, he was elected pope, but his pontificate lasted less than half a year. Celestinus was a deeply religious hermit, but as pope he was no more than a puppet of the king of Naples, Charles II. After a mere five months he shocked the Catholic world by announcing his resignation, an act that was not repeated until 2013 when Pope Benedictus XVI resigned.

Celestinus was succeeded by cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who took the name Bonifatius VIII and ruled from 1294 until 1303. The new pope prohibited his predecessor, who still had lots of supporters, to return to his hermitage in the mountains. When Celestinus managed to escape, Bonifatius had him arrested and locked up.[2] It was widely rumoured that the pope then had his predecessor murdered in prison. If you have read the novel Angels & Demons by Dan Brown, you might know the claim that modern scholars found a nail 25 centimetres long in his skull.[3] That claim is nonsense though. Celestinus’ skull does have a hole in it, but it has nothing to do with his death. The former pope was an octogenarian and suffered from all sorts of ailments, and the living conditions in his prison castle are unlikely to have been beneficial to his health. It furthermore seems rather illogical that Bonifatius waited another ten months before murdering his rival. Pietro da Morrone died on 19 May 1296 and was canonised in 1313. His order was dissolved at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century.

Interior of the church.

In the meantime, a lot had happened to the church of Sant’Eusebio. The architect Onorio Longhi (1568-1619) had remodelled the choir and high altar in 1600, and then Carlo Stefano Fontana – a nephew of the much more famous Carlo Fontana – had provided the building with a new façade in 1711. As was already mentioned above, this year is also mentioned on the façade. Starting in 1753, the whole church was remodelled by the relatively unknown architect Niccolò Picconi. He kept the thirteenth-century bell-tower and the changes implemented by Longhi, but the rest of the medieval building was lost. The present church of Sant’ Eusebio is therefore, in essence, an eighteenth-century church.

Things to see

Visitors reach the entrance of the church by ascending a double staircase. In the loggia of the church is a very white statue of a Madonna and Child. It is accompanied by the text AVE MATER DEI NIVE CANDIDIOR, “Hail Mother of God, whiter than snow”. The interior of the church is not that spectacular. Moreover, when I visited the Sant’Eusebio in January of 2022 it was very dark inside the church, as very few of the lights had been turned on. I was therefore unable to fully enjoy the artistic highlight of the building, i.e. a ceiling fresco painted by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779), a German painter born in what is now the Czech Republic. The fresco depicts Saint Eusebius in Glory, and a good image of it can be found here. On this website I have previously discussed Mengs’ funerary monument, which can be admired in the church of Santi Michele e Magno.

Madonna and Child, attributed to Pompeo Batoni.

Longhi’s richly decorated high altar also warrants closer inspection. Part of the altar is an icon of the Madonna and Child that is attributed to Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787). The Christ child is depicted with the Sacred Heart in his left hand. For the church of Il Gesù Batoni painted a similar scene of the Sacred Heart, although that scene features Christ as an adult. The Madonna is also holding a Sacred Heart, in this case pierced by a dagger. This represents her grief for the death of her son. The icon is actually part of a sculpted relief. It is held by two angels and below it two men are kneeling. The man on the left side is Eusebius, while the figure on the right represents Saint Vincent of Saragossa. Apparently the church is co-dedicated to him, and both Eusebius and Vincent are mentioned on the thirteenth-century plaque of Pope Gregorius IX in the loggia. Both furthermore have a statue adorning the façade.

Lastly, an interesting fact about the church is that each year on 17 January you can have your animals blessed here in the square in front of the building. The date of 17 January has nothing to do with Saint Eusebius: it is the feast day of Saint Anthony of Egypt (251-356). His church, the Sant’Antonio Abate all’Esquilino, is situated about 300 metres further to the west along the Via Carlo Alberto. When there was an increase in traffic in Rome in the twentieth century, the ceremony was moved to the Sant’Eusebio for safety reasons. Now I happened to be in Rome in January of 2022, as I already mentioned above, but unfortunately I could not stay long enough to attend the blessing of the animals.

Sources

  • Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 336;
  • John Julius Norwich, The Popes, chapter XIV;
  • Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 156;
  • Sant’Eusebio on Churches of Rome Wiki.

Notes

[1] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 336.

[2] John Julius Norwich, The Popes, chapter XIV.

[3] Angels & Demons, chapter 88.

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